The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here. If you want to talk spoilers, please head over to the Tor.com forums for the spoiler discussion for the spoiler discussion so my Dark Tower-virgin ears won’t hear anything before I read it.
When we last saw Roland, he had just finished telling the boy Jake about his successful coming-of-age battle against his teacher Cort. In today’s entry, I’ll cover the last five sections of “The Slow Mutants,” the fourth mega-chapter of The Gunslinger.
The Slow Mutants: Section IX
Roland reflects that he hadn’t told Jake all the details about his coming-of-age but that the boy probably knows because he is perceptive as Alain had been. He asks Jake if he understood the story, and feels a little hurt and defensive when Jake is cynical about it. Roland hadn’t shared that story before because he realizes it was a betrayal. So does Jake. “I know what I am to you,” he tells Roland, and when Ro asks what that is, Jake says, “a poker chip.” Roland tells Jake to go to sleep. Truth hurts, doesn’t it, big guy?
What Constant Reader Learns: Alain, who we haven’t seen much of, has the “touch,” which is described as “half-empathy, half-telepathy.” Don’t know if this is significant or not, but I suspect so.
Poor old Roland’s feeling the pressure of being who he is as opposed to who he could have been, it seems—and Jake points out the difference by his no-punches-pulled assessment of their situation. He’s a means to an end for Roland, and he knows it. Ro’s first impulse is to find a rock and bash the kid’s brains in. But he’s too controlled for that, so he tells him to sleep. But echoing in his mind are Marten’s words when he first challenged him: “Go and find your hand.” And, Constant Narrator tells us, “He sat stiffly in the darkness, stunned with horror and terrified (for the first time in his existence) of the self-loathing that might come afterward.” I can’t help but think of the Vietnam war, and the protests Stephen King was involved in—and the dichotomy between “duty” and “heart” that so many soldiers felt.
The Slow Mutants: Section X
The next day, as Roland and Jake continue to follow the railway through the mountain, they come upon the Slow Mutants. Jake screams when he sees the first one. Roland tells him the Slow Mutants probably won’t hurt them, but then one breaks from the pack and shambles toward them. Its body has become a “knotted mess” of tentacular limbs and suckers, and it reaches for Roland and Jake on the handcar. Roland shoots it in the head. For a while, that keeps them at bay, “a silent, hideous party of rubberneckers.”
They continue their way through the mountain, with Roland steadily pumping the handcar and thinking that, since he and Jake are creatures of the light, the Slow Mutants must really hate them. He wonders if they hated the Man in Black in the same way, and thinks not.
Before long, another round of Slow Mutants comes after them, “undoubtedly to dine,” and one manages to grab Jake’s foot. Roland shoots, but the handcar begins slowing down. Roland thinks briefly that maybe this should be the end of Jake, that he should let the Slow Mutants take him. But at the last minute, he grabs him back onto the handcar and tells him to hold on.
We think the worst is over, but those darned Mutants have blocked the track. Roland urges Jake off the handcar to clear the tracks—he needs to be able to stay where he can shoot. Jake does it, but the kid is totally freaked as the mutants gather in larger numbers. Finally, with the mutants rushing the handcar (nice of them to wait until the track was cleared), Roland and Jake make a getaway after a few more close calls. Finally, they leave the Mutants behind, and Jake tells Roland he can slow down. But the gunslinger doesn’t slow down, and “they careened onward into the strange dark.”
What Constant Reader Learns: So, the Slow Mutants, near as I can tell, are humans who’ve spent so long underground that they’ve become mostly inhuman and somewhat phosphorescent, although now they’re sort of glowing human-zombie-octopus things. I can’t help but think of Smeagol (aka Gollum) of The Hobbit, who’d spent so much time below ground with the ring that he became less-than-Hobbitlike. Of course it was the ring’s influence that changed Smeagol to Gollum, and the Slow Mutants maybe fled into the caves from war or plague or whatever the hell was going on in the last days in this world. They shamble around like zombies, and we’re treated to much grossness as Stephen King gleefully describes them.
The overt religious references are back! As Roland looks at the shambling mass of mutants coming for them, he likens them to the lame and blind who followed Jesus, looking for a miracle. “Perhaps they only looked for a Jesus to heal them, to raise them Lazarus-like from the darkness,” Roland thinks. Uh, that would be after they ate your brains, man. Later, he calls them “a street-corner congregation of the damned.”
After invisible demon succubus woman and the Man in Black himself, which he didn’t get so freaked over, Jake is a trembling mess in the face of the “Slow Muties,” as Roland thinks of them. He’s maybe thinking that’s his fate as well. We learn that Jake had ridden in cars, once at 90 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike with his “humorless father,” Elmer Chambers—but even that wasn’t as bad as riding through the dark with the river flowing alongside them sounding like the cackling of the man in black. Wonder if we’re going to meet Elmer Chambers in some future time-warping sequence.
The Slow Mutants: Section XI
I’ll just quote this section verbatim:“They went on for three ‘days’ without incident.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Even I can’t find an obscure reference in that eight-word section except…wait for it…it’s THREE days. Three’s the current number of importance for Roland. It’s also the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. So who—or what—rises on the third day?
The Slow Mutants: Section XII
Three days later—only we can’t really be sure what constitutes a day anymore—the handcar track takes a curve to the left, and they see a faint light ahead. “It’s the end,” Jake says, to which Roland replies, “No, it’s not.” They can see well enough, however, to tell they’ve reached some kind of hangar with criss-crossing rails, old boxcars, passenger coaches, a stage adapted to rails. Sort of a vehicular graveyard. Coming off the hangar are a series of twenty-four entryways, with signs above them in different languages. Roland is able to read the last one—an “ancient root of the High Speech,” which reads: “Track 10 to Surface and Points West.” Which confirms the suspicion that Roland is well into the future of our world.
They continue until they come to a central terminal, and Roland lets the handcar coast to a stop. “It’s like a subway,” Jake says, but Roland doesn’t know what he’s talking about and Jake doesn’t remember enough to explain it. They climb off the handcar and walk through what does, indeed, sound like a modern-day rail station, with shops and booths. Roland goes all orgasmic at the sight of a weapon shop, but rejects the revolvers and rifles whose barrels had been filled with lead. He picks up a bow and quiver of arrows.
In the corner of a bookstall is a mummy in a trainman’s uniform with a preserved newspaper in his lap that crumbles to dust when Roland touches it. “Gas,” Roland says. “The old people made a gas that would do this. Or so Vannay told us.” Jake says, “I bet these old people fought wars with it. Killed other people with it.” There are about a dozen other mummies.
Jake has a flash of rebellion as Roland tells him it’s time to go, and Jake says he won’t; he’ll take his chances by himself. Roland nods, bids him good-bye, and returns to the handcar. “How easily you bluff this young boy,” the gunslinger tells himself. And a sudden thought occurs to him: he could take Jake and turn back. He could resume his quest for the Tower after Jake has grown up, and they can return together. But just as suddenly, he realizes they will both die if they turn back. So he pretends to leave without Jake and, as he knew he would, Jake runs after him and jumps aboard the handcar. Roland’s last thought in this section: “The end was very close now.”
What Constant Reader Learns: So this place sounds like a big train station or subway terminal, filled with all kinds of things that have been adapted to rail travel, but it’s impossible to tell what periods of time the boxcars and coaches are from. Then they find the mummies—Roland thinks they’re wearing trainman uniforms, but I have to wonder if they aren’t military uniforms instead. The whole conversation about gas—nerve gas?—makes me think instead of a plague maybe it’s biological warfare that’s thrown everything off.
So English is “an ancient root of the High Speech?” *sound of Constant Reader’s head exploding like a Slow Mutant beneath the onslaught of Roland’s bullets*
The Slow Mutants: Section XIII
The sound of the river continues to grow louder. Roland lets Jake pump the handcar while he practices shooting the bad arrows that are tethered to the bow. The last one comes back wet, so they have gotten within sixty yards of the river. Three (!) more days have passed, and they see some phosphorescent rocks that Jake mispronounces “fotsuls”—or that’s how Roland hears it. They come to a deep chasm where the tracks stretch over the river—on the other side, a long way away, they see a pinprick of true daylight.
They crawl to the edge of the chasm and Roland tries to gauge how much weight the aging trestle will hold. Not enough to support the handcar—he tells Jake they must walk across. It’s a treacherous journey, as the corroded trestle groans and gives beneath Roland’s weight—Jake, being much lighter, has an easier time of it as the trestle begins to slope upward toward the light.
They get within 90 feet of the hole out of the chasm and into daylight, when the Man in Black himself peers down in the hole with a hearty, “Hello, boys!” Jake screams and totters, cants off the rail and hangs on the side, looking up at Roland. “Help me,” he says, and of course Roland does not. He leaps over the dangling boy and saves himself as the trestle collapses behind him. No going back. From far beneath him, he hears Jake’s voice: “Go then. There are other worlds than these.” And Jake made no cry as he fell.
Roland climbs out of the tunnel, realizing that “there would be further degradations of the spirit ahead that might make this one seem infinitesimal.” The Man in Black is waiting for him, all grins and giggles. Roland, almost on instinct, fires at him twelve times but either misses or it doesn’t matter. And the gunslinger follows him “to the place of counseling.”
What Constant Reader Learns:
Roland gives us a little sneak preview of what Jake will experience as he can’t stop himself from imagining what it would feel like to fall off the high trestle into the river gorge below: “the scream of twisting, giving metal, the lurch as his body slid off to the side, the grabbing for nonexistent handholds with the fingers, the swift rattle of boot heels on treacherous, rotted steel—and then down, turning over and over, the warm spray in his crotch as his bladder let go, the rush of wind against his face, rippling his hair up in a caricature of fright, pulling his eyelids back, the dark water rushing to meet him, faster, outstripping even his own scream.”
In a mind-boggling set of images, as Roland looks over the edge of the rail at the dangling Jake, he thinks: “The boy dangled, a living Tarot card, the Hanged Man, the Phoenician sailor, innocence lost and barely above the wave of a stygian sea.” So we get some Tarot, some T.S. Eliot, some Dante, some River Styx. I just don’t even know what to do with that.
Jake’s death is almost anti-climactic since we’ve known it was coming for so long, and his warning that “there are other worlds than these” makes me suspect we’re going to see him again along the long road to the Tower.
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll pick up with the first four sections of The Gunslinger’s last chapter, titled “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black.”